How Did Washington State and Washington, D.C., Get the Same Name?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 9 2012 6:06 PM

How Did Washington State and Washington, D.C., Get the Same Name?

Congress really, really liked the nation's first president.

Washington sign.
Um, could you be a little more specific?

Photo by Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.

The Washington state Legislature approved gay marriage Wednesday. When Gov. Chris Gregoire signs the bill into law, her state will become the second Washington to recognize gay marriage since Washington, D.C., did so in 2009. Why do we have two Washingtons?

Because it’s better than having two Columbias. The commission tasked with delineating the new national capital in 1791 named it the “Territory of Columbia.” (Federal statutes vacillated between calling the area a “territory” and a “district” for decades, with the latter becoming the official title in 1871.) When settlers in northern Oregon asked the government to establish an independent “Columbia Territory” in 1852, Congress faced a problem. Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, Kentucky Democrat Richard Henry Stanton noted, “We already have a Territory of Columbia.” The confusion could intensify, he added, if the new territory were to add a city called Washington or Georgetown. Congress agreed to grant the settlers independence from Oregon, but named their new state Washington to honor the first president.

Contemporary statesmen would have argued that Washington, D.C., was a city, not a territory or state, so the duplication of the name wouldn't be such a big deal. There were already lots of localities that shared names with states, such as Florida, N.Y., and Georgia, Vt., not to mention cities that have the same name as their own state, like New York City and Delaware City. By the mid-19th century, there were already dozens of place names that included the word Washington, and there are at least 120 today. (The first was Fort Washington—now known as Washington Heights—established in New York during the Revolutionary War.)

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The name of the Washington Territory became a public issue again when the territorial government petitioned for statehood in the 1880s, although duplication was only one element of the discussion. Prominent lawyer David Dudley Field II—most famous for the reformation and codification of the country’s arcane court procedures—kicked off a nationwide renaming movement with a wonderfully colorful speech to the American Geographic Society in 1885. Field argued that native names invariably sound better than the settlers’ alternatives: “What a name is New York for this queen of Western cities! Compare it with that which the Indian gave it, barbarian as we call him, Manhattan or Manahatta. Who for its euphony and its significance would not wish the old name back again?” Field singled out the place names Tombstone, Wild Cat, Rawhide, and Dirt Town, among a few others, as “disgusting” and suggestive of “semi-barbarous” residents.

Field also pointed out that naming places after prominent people has led to duplication and confusion. He noted, “I make my boast that I am an American ... but the Brazilians and the Peruvians claim also to be Americans, and the claim cannot be denied.” Field urged the government avoid this mistake by converting the Washington Territory into the state of Tacoma. (Field also objected to the cardinal directions in the names of North and South Dakota, which were petitioning for statehood at the same time, and sought to change the name of the New Mexico Territory to “Sonora.”)

Residents of the Washington territory resisted Field’s proposals for name reform. Washingtonians—those from the state, not the city—thought Field’s argument was bunk. One letter-writer pointed out, “it would be a stupid postal clerk, indeed, who would fail to distinguish” between Washington, D.C., and Washington state. These arguments, paired with sheer inertia, carried the day.

By establishing a state of Washington, Congress belatedly fulfilled a century-old wish of the late Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, a Jefferson-chaired committee suggested that Congress divide the Northwest Territory into 10 states, for which Jefferson suggested names. Most of modern-day Ohio was to be called Washington state. (Washington, D.C., didn’t exist at the time, so the name wouldn’t have been duplicative.) Incidentally, if Congress had accepted Jefferson’s naming scheme in its entirety, modern-day Michiganders would be living in either Metropotamia or Chersonesus, depending on their location. People in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois would be residents of Assenispia.

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Explainer thanks Jennifer Kilmer of the Washington State Historical Society.

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